MPEG Transport or IP Transport: Both?

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Last time, we examined the mechanics of this thing called "MPEG transport," and its role as chief organizer of the bits that hurtle digital video, broadband Internet and telephony toward subscribing cable homes.

This time, we'll contrast Moving Picture Experts Group file transport with its newer contender: IP, or "Internet protocol," which is also a method for moving digital bits to homes.

Recall that while "MPEG transport" contains the word "transport," which implies motion, MPEG-2 is actually a protocol. Internet protocol, true to its name, is a protocol.

Protocols describe how machines talk to each other — how to make digital bits recognizable to the gadgets that receive them.

MPED's early lead

Technologists involved in the earliest days of digital cable say there's a reason they went with MPEG transport, at the time: It's simpler, and it's more efficient.

It was built especially for video.

Its packets are a fixed length – 188 bytes — which makes it easier for machines, like set-tops, to locate and rebuild a picture onto a TV screen.

Packets within an IP stream, on the other hand, are more complex, and can be way bigger — upwards of 1,500 bytes. Because of that, they need more overhead to locate the bits necessary to rebuild a picture onto a TV screen. That overhead is calculated as a bandwidth penalty of about 10%, relative to MPEG transport.

At the time, they say, MPEG transport just made more sense.

Fast forward to now. Talk of "IP video" continues to march beyond technical discussions, nearer and nearer to the industrial mainstream. Big companies yearn for it. Witness Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer's closing comment to attendees of the CTAM Summit in Seattle last week: "I predict there's a lot to do in the future, using the IP network over cable."

Path to modem

Loosely speaking, the IP network over cable is the signal path traveled by cable modems. It rides the same plant as digital video, but bits move through a different equipment sequence. Instead of going through a digital video controller at the headend, for example, the bits of the IP network go through a cable-modem termination system, or CMTS.

There, the bits of broadband Internet (or voice-over-IP, or IP video) get affixed with packet identifiers, or "PIDs," in the parlance of MPEG. They slip into the MPEG transport stream for the downstream ride to homes. (See the July 14, 2003, "Translation Please" for more on this.)

Because of the development fervor around IP, though, technologists are starting to ponder this riddle: Should we continue to map IP packets into MPEG, or should we be thinking about mapping MPEG packets into IP?

Some say IP transport is the end game. Others say MPEG transport is plenty good enough for whatever comes along.

Can do both

The good news is, cable is in a position to do either or both, if it wishes. Not without new equipment, obviously – the 25 million fielded digital set-tops in America don't contain the circuitry that knows what to do with IP video or transport.

They don't have a built-in cable modem, for example. They don't have a companion "DOCSIS set-top gateway," or "DSG," at the headend (see the March 24, 2003 "Translation Please" column for more on DSG).

They don't have chips that know what to do with the types of advanced compression that generally swirl around talk of "IP video."

The newer set-top lines from all the suppliers do contain those things — or, at the least, a built-in cable modem.

But the decision over IP versus MPEG, for transporting bits to devices in homes, goes way beyond technology. It holds competitive, economic, and strategic implications.

Telcos use IP

Telcos use IP for digital subscriber line (DSL) services and whatever is next, including IP video. Using the same technical underpinnings as the competition raises questions of differentiation – as in, how to be better than the next guy, when you're both using the same ingredients.

Then there's the saturation challenge. It's a quiet fact that about half of America's 70 million cable customers don't take video services that require a set-top box. If there are 25 million digital cable customers now, and there's a potential wall at 35 million … the math is pretty simple. Short of swap-outs, 10 million marketable homes remain for the newer units.

The optimist would view the conundrum as another example of cable's architectural pliability: MPEG or IP? Whichever. Pick. It's not like the industry has to shrug its shoulders and walk away, unable to play.

The answer to the questions of MPEG vs. IP transport almost certainly won't come wondering what to do, which is better and what'll happen.

Part of being innovative, after all, is trying out innovations. IP — and IP video — definitely qualify.

Maybe some trials make sense. Put some meat on the bones of the discussion. See which one works best — technically, financially, and strategically.

Just a thought.

Questions? Suggestions? Contact Leslie Ellis at Ellis299@aol.com.

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